Ultra-Trail Cape Town branding provides the backdrop for three Canadians who excelled at the UTCT 100km – Mathieu Blanchard (4th overall), Marianne Hogan (2nd woman) and Jean-Francois Cachon (6th overall). Photo: Stephen Granger

By Stephen Granger

The dust has settled on Ultra-trail Cape Town (UTCT) trails and most of the international athletes who participated have found sufficient gaps in flight bans to depart our shores, following an exceptional Ultra-trail Cape Town event which saw global icons Jim Walmsley and Courtney Dauwalter racing to impressive victories in the epic 100km race.

The athletes who visited from foreign shores returned home not with stories about the alarming COVID pandemic, but ecstatic about their visit to Cape Town and further afield, having enjoyed running some of the world’s finest mountain trails, many vowing to return for more fun and adventure in Southern Africa.

South African runners Mzwakhe Khanyile, Nic Rupanga and Siviwe Nkombi at the UTCT prize giving. Photo: Stephen Granger

And many local and international athletes can’t wait for next year’s UTCT, which promises to be even bigger and better. The addition of the 100 miler for the first time in the UTCT’s history in the 2022 edition has been a big talking point and will undoubtedly cement the status of the Cape Town event as the continent’s premier trail event, but before looking to the future, the organisers are reflecting back on a job well done and where the event can still improve.

“I think it went very well,” reflected race director Stuart McConnachie. “The energy UTCT creates even in the middle of COVID protocols hit home just how special this event is. UTCT definitely has a special feeling about it – the ever-growing trail running community in Cape Town rallies in support, friends and family pop in at aid stations along the way and there is widespread support for both runners and volunteers.

The joy of victory – Courtney Dauwalter. Photo: Stephen Granger

“The volunteers work long hours for the thrill of helping others to achieve big goals. Runners often decide to race one year and the next year work in support of a friend running one of the races. More and more people are being bitten by the trail bug and they get a real sense of achievement from pushing themselves in an event atmosphere.”

The sudden onset of COVID concern around the Omicron variant played havoc with South African summer-season tourism plans and led to the summary cancellation of major rugby, cricket and other sports matches on the same weekend as UTCT. The international trail athletes who had arrived in Cape Town days earlier, however, were determined to honour their commitment to race on Table Mountain and not a single participant invited as an elite athlete took the ‘safe’ option to fly out the day before – the last day to escape potential quarantine penalties.

Race founder Nic Bornman congratulates 2015 winner Kerry-Anne Marshall on another podium finish. Photo: Stephen Granger

“Considering the COVID global climate and the local pressure with new variant and weather which culminated in challenging week, the fact that we managed to have just about a full-capacity event and did it without a hitch was fantastic,” race founder Nic Bornman reflected. “Honestly I can’t really recall a significant problem. There might have been a twisted ankle here and minor scrapes but in spite of the gnarly weather there was no hyperthermia and no one needed to use their space blanket.”

COVID, however, did have a significant impact on UTCT, with the longer-term uncertainty on whether the event would take place adding pressure on the organisers, who were faced with making a number of last-minute decisions to ensure the success of the race.  

Winner of the 65km race, American Cody Reed looks on as his compatriot Jim Walmsley enjoys a congratulatory hug from his partner, and winner of the 21km, Jessica Brazzeau. Photo: Stephen Granger

“When we hosted the Mont Rochelle SkyRace in mid-September we were still unsure if UTCT was going ahead,” explained McConnachie.  “Then regulations lifted the limit of hundred at outside events to five hundred and we said ‘let’s go for it’.  People quickly sensed it was happening and entries started to trickle in. We were lucky in signing Jim (Walmsley) and Courtney (Dauwalter). The day after that announcement was our biggest day of sales of entries apart from the opening day.

“Inevitably we did not have as many international entries this year but on a good year not affected by COVID the event will grow even bigger. About 15% of the participants were internationals, down on the 35% of 2019.  With the extended 24 hour cut-off again in place next year and the addition of the 100 miler, we are convinced that Cape Town will be the destination of choice for many trail athletes next year.”

Simply the best – Leanne Raymond wins the trophy for the top volunteer. Photo: Stephen Granger

For Bornman, UTCT’s first and successful attempt at broadcasting the race proved the highlight. “It was the first time doing that level of broadcast, which showcased an event which really has teeth. I think the film showed that it’s tough up there – a genuine mountain race with which to contend. I was thrilled with the broadcast which will remain a powerful feature of UTCT going forwards.”

Race Director Stuart McConnachie agreed. “The broadcast was a big part of the event and went better than I had imagined. We hadn’t had the race for two years so we needed to make a big statement. We needed to say we’re still here and thriving.”

UTCT Partners Stuart McConnachie (left) and Nic Bornman present 2019 UTCT 100km winner Cody Reed with a memorable framed souvenir of the route he ran. Photo: Stephen Granger

“Max (Cluer, the broadcast anchor) was incredible,” continued Bornman. “He is a professional and can hold an audience. We are negotiating with SANParks around adding aerial footage next year, which will make a huge difference. Drones have their limitations, especially in bad weather, so we will be looking at making use of helicopters.”

As good as UTCT was, neither Bornman nor McConnachie gave it a 100% pass.  “We will look closely at a number of aspects where we can improve,” remarked Bornman. “For me a major glitch was that runners ran through our ‘stoppers’ which we had placed shortly before the finish in order to ensure a clean finishing straight for our two race leaders, Jim Walmsley and Courtney Dauwalter.

2021 Champions – American athletes Jim Walmsley and Courtney Dauwalter. Photo: Stephen Granger

“Unfortunately, a couple of 65km athletes ran through the stoppers and spoiled the finish photos. Apart from that, we need to have stronger control of the finish area to facilitate ‘top three’ photos, doping control among other things.”

McConnachie rued the ‘last-minute dot com’ approach which was forced on them this year. “As a result, we felt that a couple of aid stations were not quite up to par. And there was so much pressure time-wise to align everything.

Jess Brazeau, winner of the UTCT 21km, gets the pic of her partner Jim Walmsley at prize-giving. Photo: Stephen Granger

“Every year there seems to be an extra layer of admin to get through with the City and SANParks. I’m not complaining and appreciate the reasons for that. But this year there was just so little time. Because of COVID regulations, we were forced to relocate our aid station previously on the UCT campus and made the final decision just two weeks before the event.”

Bornman is upbeat about the event’s future. 

“My vision from the start was to host a 100 miler event in Cape Town and its acceptance for next year signifies the pinnacle of where the event needs to be. In a sense the past years have been a rite of passage to reach the 100 miler. And I believe the live broadcast will take the event beyond where it has been. People in Cape Town and all of the world will be able to watch athletes running through the Cape’s natural and cultural heritage. I truly anticipate that UTCT will have similar status to other very big events in the country.

“We would love to build the event into a week-long running festival and adventure, in much the same style as the world-famous Ultra-trail Mont Blanc.  This would become a much bigger and bolder celebration with more time between events, giving sponsors and partners even more capacity to build their brands.”

Daniel Claassen, top South African finisher in the 100 km, in 5th place overall, at the prize-giving with fiancee Dane. Photo: Stephen Granger

McConnachie would like to see the world’s leading trail teams such as Hoka, Salomon, North Face and Matryx bring their full teams to UTCT as one of their key calendar target dates which would then support multiple athletes running races of varying distances, competing to out-run and out-market each other. “Then we would know we have truly arrived on the world stage,” concluded McConnachie.

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